Restoring wooden blocks

You can buy matching wooden blocks if so inclined, but the author doesn’t mind “mixing and matching,” and enjoys the restorative process. Photo by Capt. Michael L. Martel

Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

My boat has a traditional gaff rig, like so many classic craft in New England and the Chesapeake, so naturally she has to be equipped with traditional fittings if she’s going to look right. And this mandate includes wood shell blocks for the running rigging.

When I bought her, the seller had been living aboard and restoring her for a few years, but she wasn’t rigged yet. A new job and relocation meant he had to move on, and just couldn’t finish her. But, luckily, he had worked in a boatyard, and was a conscientious sort of collector, pack-ratting anything and everything that he could find, visiting consignment shops and boat graveyards, collecting things that he knew would be needed when, and if, his boat was finally rigged.

This collection included two milk crates worth of odd blocks – some very old, most newer – of various sizes, shapes, configurations and makers. When the deal was closed, I ended up with spars, fittings, blocks, sails, geegaws, and lots of odds and ends that he had put aside. Some things were in good shape; others were not so good, such as the sails.

To me, though, the two crates of old blocks were a treasure-trove. There were classic Merriman blocks with their trident logo stamped in the brass coins on both sides. There was one very old, curious-looking one with the Maltese cross stamped in soft lead. And some of the blocks had no coins at all over the hole for the axle-pin.

I had blocks with bronze sheaves, with and without bearings; galvanized steel sheaves; and blocks with bronze pins, steel pins and straps that were cast; and some that were simply steel, bronze, stainless, even forged. I had blocks with ash shells, and some with strange, dark tropical wood, and some with teak shells as well. The variety was wonderful, but they all needed to be restored in order to work properly and last.

Couldn’t I have bought new ones? You can always buy new ones if you have the budget, which I didn’t then, but I did have a workshop. New traditional blocks are expensive. You can have that uniformity provided by all new blocks by the same maker, if you can afford it, but my old boat is such a hodgepodge of history and memories that I decided to recondition the old ones. It would be more fun, I reasoned, plus, by giving the old blocks a refit, I would know exactly what I had, useful knowledge when they are deployed aloft and are holding your rig together on a blustery day offshore.

Reconditioning blocks requires complete disassembly, which is no problem really; these are simple mechanisms, just keep everything together. I used one large paper cup for the parts of each block. My approach was the same as what my late grandfather, who had built boats for Herreshoff, had taught me: Take your time, be thorough, take no shortcuts. Clean, repair, treat each separate part individually, then reassemble.

The first step in my restoration process was to disassemble each block, keeping the wooden shells (and breeches) separate. I lightly sanded and cleaned them up. If they were badly split, such as might compromise the integrity of the shell or shorten its life, I mixed up a small batch of 5:1 marine epoxy-and-adhesive filler, and carefully filled the cracks or checks with it as deeply as I could. Then I put the shell in a vise, or clamped it gently, to bring the shell back into shape and close the fissure.

Checks will open up the wood, and the shell loses its shape, and becomes too open and loose. Some of the epoxy will ooze out, but that’s not a problem: Scrape it off, and, after the epoxy is fully cured, sand it back fair. I often mix wood flour or wood dust saved from my sander as the adhesive filler because it then matches the color of the block’s wood.

Once the shells of the blocks were repaired and sanded, I mixed up a couple of quarts of my own “skiff sauce” to soak them in. This is a mixture of boiled linseed oil, pine tar (or Stockholm tar, which is even better, if you can find it), mineral spirits, some teak oil, a capful of Japan Drier (a drying agent), and a few ounces of Penetrol. The few boatbuilders who still construct things out of wood will have their own closely guarded secret formulas for skiff sauce.

Mix well and pour the brown goopy liquid into a shallow plastic food-storage container, such as one made by Tupperware or Rubbermaid. Then lay the blocks in the sauce on their flat sides, and cover the receptacle tightly. Turn every day for the first week, and then once every three days for another three weeks.

Winter is a good time to do this. Let those poor old dry, thirsty, weathered block shells soak up that good, wood-nourishing sauce for the better part of a month, then hang them from a rack to dry for a couple of weeks. I hang them using S-hooks made from clothes hanger wire and a curtain-rod-type arrangement. Leave them in a place protected from the weather, but with a reasonable air flow, such as a shed or garage. After reassembly, you can varnish them with a good high-solids varnish, or leave them as they are, dried after saturation with skiff sauce. They will drip, so lay down newspapers to protect your floor.

Don’t varnish the shells before reassembly. You’ll be tempted to varnish the inside as well, but that will add dimension to the cut channels inside and make the blocks difficult to reassemble.

While the shells are drying, you can work on the rest of the parts. I found that most of the pins, made of bronze, were badly worn. This was, I imagined, because they had been subjected to greater strain than they had been designed for, or had been used with wire rope, which is not what wooden shell blocks are intended for.

So, I calculated the total length of the pins and purchased a couple of small rods of solid naval bronze and simply cut them to length to match the old one, and beveled the ends with my bench sander. In most cases I could re-use the old T-end pins, I simply had to drill a hole through the end of the axle-pin and install the small one. These little pins hold the shaft in place on the block. They can only come out of the block one way, and that will be covered by a “coin” with two small holes drilled at the outer edge of the coin. Small brass screws hold the coin in place. For the sake of symmetry, a coin or disk covers the slightly inset area over the axle on the opposite shell of the block; it looks right and also keeps dirt and weather out.

In many blocks found in my treasure trove, the original coin was missing, or was a small disc of junk metal. So I poured out my piggy bank and found coins that were the right size, or close enough, to replace them, then simply drilled and countersunk the little screw holes. My boat now has quite a few blocks with Canadian 25-cent pieces on their faces, giving my old gaffer a decidedly international flair.

What to do with the sheaves? Clean them up well. I like to soak them in a little pail of mineral spirits, then scrub them up with a throw-away chip brush. Gray metal dust and old grease will have become caked on them, especially those nice Merriman sheaves with bronze bearings and the retainer spring. Clean them and dry them, but do not oil them.

For cheaper steel sheaves, or galvanized ones without bearings, I spray them after cleaning with a pure zinc spray and let them dry. The zinc will minimize corrosion of the metal. Bronze requires no such treatment; bronze-on-bronze has a self-lubricating quality, but, as I will point out near the end, we can do better with spray dry lubricant.

Now that the wooden shells, sheaves, and pins have been restored or remade, all that is left to address are the metal straps. These can be, as mentioned before, bronze, stainless, cast steel, or bent-steel strips. I clean these up with a wire brush wheel, and, for bronze and stainless, there isn’t much else to do. For ferrous metals it’s another matter.

I’ve tried many different kinds of treatments with varying degrees of success. The goal, of course, is to inhibit rust and prevent degradation. Blocks high up the mast cannot be easily serviced, and, as a result, usually aren’t. So I want to make them as rust and weather-resistant as I can. For plain steel, after cleaning, one has options, such as priming and painting, but the key is always not to lay it on too thick as this will make reassembly difficult.

Thus far, the best luck I’ve had is by spraying the part with the liquid-zinc aerosol, and, after it’s dry, painting it with a clear varnish with UV protection. It looks natural that way. I’ve tried clear epoxy before, and, other than being thick, it might have worked, except that UV radiation eats it up. Clear epoxy has no UV protection in its chemistry. Make sure your clear coat does, so it will stand up better to the elements.

Now carefully reassemble your blocks. I use a rubber or rawhide mallet to gently persuade the parts to come together. I will replace broken or worn pins and thimbles in the beckets of blocks that have them, and, at the end of the day, the blocks are all now serviceable and ready to use in the rigging.

Just be sure to use doubles and singles where they are called for, and appropriately match the size of the block (sheave and swallow) to the diameter of the line running through it.

But what about lubrication, you ask? Many a fine block has worn out or been damaged by well-intentioned efforts to lubricate them with oil or grease. These products simply collect dust and dirt and build up an abrasive, gooey, crusty sludge inside the block that actually impedes its performance and shortens its life. Thankfully, today, we have wonderful, modern compounds that lubricate without sludging up the block. Dry lubricant spray, applied to the insides of the blocks a couple of times a year, will keep them lubricated, working nicely, and clean.

Refurbishing traditional blocks is relatively easy, and simply involves patience and time. In the end you will have strong, reliable blocks that will stand the test of time in your rigging, with only minimal maintenance.

Capt. Mike Martel, sailing out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton Master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine-industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean, and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.